In the annals of Tolkien fandom, there is no subject more likely to cause an argument that the subject of the songs. Anyone who’s read either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings knows that fans either love them or hate them. Anecdotally, I’d go so far as to say that casual fans tend to simply skim over them in the process of reading the books, while those who are a little more in-depth in their appreciation read them and savor them (though whether they enjoy them, per se, is a rather different question). To some they’re an essential part of world-building, while to others they’re hopelessly self-indulgent and more than a little silly.
In my opinion as someone who has read both of these books more times than I can count, I have to say that I’m still divided. Part of me dearly wants to love the ones that Tolkien clearly took the most pride in–the great romantic tales of Beren and Luthien, the sailing of Eärendil the mariner–but I’ll be honest, they’re kind of a slog to get through. I’m not enough of a poetry critic to gauge whether they’re “good” (I’m also rather dubious about such distinctions in any case). Sometimes, I do read them in their entirety, but at other times I skim through them to get to the parts of the narrative that interest me more.
At the same time, I can appreciate how these serious songs function in the context of the books as a whole. In the case of The Lord of the Rings, they are often symbolic of the power of the Elves, even in the darkening hours of the Third Age, to command some measure of power. For example, when Frodo, Sam, and Pippin encounter Elves in the Shire, it is their song in praise of Elbereth that drives away the Black Rider. It’s clear that for Tolkien song in particular was a powerful form of magic as great as anything that a wizard can create.
I can say, however, that as I continue to re-read Lord of the Rings, I find myself absolutely loving the ones that are more humourous in tone. Both the elaboration of the nursery rhyme “The Man in the Moon” and Sam’s ditty about the Troll never fail to bring a smile to my face. But, more than that, they do reveal some important facts about Tolkien and the way that he viewed his act of creation. In the case of “The Man in the Moon,” we can see him performing the sort of linguistic archaeology that he loved so dearly, giving us an extended version of the very short nursery rhyme that we already know so well.
In the case of Sam’s song about the Troll, it is not only very amusing–almost earthy–but it also reveals something important about Sam. While we might be forgiven for regarding Master Samwise as something of a buffoon, there are hidden layers to his character that really come into the open at moments like this. Through this song, we learn that he is actually a far more competent and intelligent character than we might have been led to believe.
No doubt the arguments about the merits and drawbacks of Tolkien’s songs will continue to rage for as long as people continue returning to Middle-earth. Love them or hate them, however, you have to admit that they remain a key part of the world that Tolkien created, a reminder of just how much he laboured to make a world that had its own internal consistency. If we owe one thing to Peter Jackson’s films (and I would argue that we actually owe quite a lot), he deserves credit for bringing the songs out of the realm of the abstract and into the performative. Let’s face it. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to really hear how a song is supposed to sound when you’re reading it silently. However, I dare you to remain unmoved by Billy Boyd’s singing of the travel song (even if it is delivered out of its original context).
What are your thoughts about the songs in the work of Tolkien? Do you love them, hate them, or some combination of the two? Let me know in the comments!